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Last weekend, Pantera Press flew me over to Canberra for the Booksellers Conference. The conference is like an expo, with all the publishers having stalls. Booksellers go from stall to stall to see what each publisher has coming out. Myself, and another Pantera author, Meg Gatland-Veness, pitched our books to the booksellers who visited our stall.

My pitch went something like this:

    August Falling is the story of August, who’s just come out of a bad relationship. His life is in disarray. He’s the sort of guy who hates waking up in the morning, and dreads every moment of his existence. But then he meets a woman, who would seem to be perfect for him. This is usually where you’d go into the fairy-tale romance and everything would end happily ever after. But the woman has a secret – one that threatens to destabilise August’s life even further. So while I’ve made this sound like a relationship story, the relationship is actually ancillary to what’s happening. This is a story about somebody who’s flawed and vulnerable reaching deep into himself to find the courage to go on, to make peace with himself, and find his place in the world.

Would you read it given that pitch?

Interestingly, when I talked about the ‘woman of his dreams’, I saw some eyes glaze, which I thought was natural: not another quirky rom-com. It’s what I’d think, and a big part of the inspiration as to why I wrote this book. I wanted to do something opposite to those stories. But as far as the pitch went, I realised this became a good contrast for what came next – the secret, and August’s life potentially unravelling. That elicited a few oohs and ahhhs. They wanted to know.

Pantera’s Marketing and PR Director, Anabel, remarked to me that August Falling is a dark story. That surprised me. While writing both these novels, I never thought of Just Another Week in Suburbia or August Falling as ‘dark’. Both go to dark places, but I hoped to complement that with humour and wryness, because that’s what life often is: funny. Funny funny, funny strange, funny dark, etc.

It also makes me think of the new one, TFSoLY, which I knew – going in – was going to be dark. Casper and August are, in their way, followers. Casper’s life falls apart because of his discovery. August has always struggled to fit, and circumstances have widened those cracks. They’re trying to work out what to do. They do struggle with adversity. But that’s part of their respective journeys. They’re also both creative, and have that constant inner monologue of chatter. But Luke is different. Luke is hard and straightforward and stoic.

TFSoLY hit the road like a meteorite last week – gaining momentum, leaving a fiery wake, and then stopping and being buried, due to a scene involving a prison visitation. I researched prisons through Google and YouTube, then asked a friend, immensely talented crime author JM Peace, about the area I was interested in.

JM provided me with invaluable help with JAWiS – there’s a legal situation that comes up in the story that I’d totally misrepresented, and through her help I was able to fix it. (The scene in question was actually cut due to her feedback.) In this case, she told me she had limited experience with what I needed to know, so took a few educated guesses. I then spoke to a client who’s a lawyer; she knew about everything firsthand and gave me fantastic detailed information.

I’d written over one thousand words delving into the visitation and then hit that block where I didn’t know if what I was doing could really happen, if it – at the very least – could be probable, or if it was an impossibility. The new information enlightened me that it was the latter. That was okay. I didn’t want anybody reading this book and having their suspension of disbelief ruptured by something that couldn’t happen, and I couldn’t keep writing knowing a vital plot point was untrue. So I’ve had to cut, modify, and reset, which accounts for the little progress I’ve made this week with the word count.

In the end, I want the story to feel true.

That wasn’t something I felt in relation to the book I brought to read on the flight up to and back from Canberra. From the opening sentence, I struggled to get into it. I had to reread the first ten pages three times to track what was going on. Each time I reread it, I picked up something I’d somehow previously missed, which helped provide context. For whatever reason, I’d blank-out as I was reading and miss vital information required to understand what was going on.

The night before the conference, Anabel, her assistant Anna, Meg, and I, had dinner at a restaurant, just across from where Malcolm Turnball, Michael McCormack, and several other members from the Liberal Party were busking for loose change – what they wanted it for I have no idea. Anabel and Anna had just given Meg her debut book, I Had Such Friends, which is being released 1st August. While they chatted, I grabbed the book, read the blurb, then read the first page.

Anabel, Anna, Meg, and The Les at the Booksellers Conference.

It would be easy to think I’m shilling for a Pantera stable-mate, but most people who know me would know that I don’t give out praise indiscriminately. The first page engaged me immediately; the opening was interesting, and the voice sharp. In another setting – if I’d had this on the plane, or if I’d been reading in the comfort of my hotel room – I could’ve easily read on.

I think voice is the most important thing in writing, as well as the truest. A good voice can sell the lamest story, and a bad voice will fail to sell the greatest story. As far as reading goes, sometimes it’s simply about just not connecting with a voice – that might’ve been the case with the book I brought for the flight. It might be a fantastic book. It just might not be for me.

But I always enjoy finding a book that speaks to me from the very first line because I know no matter what happens on the ensuing pages, at least I can have a conversation with this book.

Because that’s what reading is: it’s a conversation – the author telling you a story while you keep asking questions, the most important being, What happens next?

And that’s why you turn the page.

 
Last Week’s Lie: Um, yeah, there is no They.
 

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You will rarely write anything where you don’t – at some point – hit a stumbling block, a wrong turn, or a dead end.

I hit my first wrong turn in TFSoLY, which is a result of me still trying to feel my way through the world and find out more about it. I like the introduction of the two central characters, but then I wanted a tour of the protagonist’s daily life.

Only the way I was doing it wasn’t working – a wrong turn.

Taking a wrong turn is a bigger problem than hitting a stumbling block or a dead end. A stumbling block is a minor annoyance – something you can work through. Often, with a stumbling block you can use a patchwork solution that will hold until revision provides alternatives. You hit a dead end and that’s it. You know that’s not the way to go and you need to take a different way. Usually, that’ll take time to discover. You might ruminate on it for hours, if not days (and, granted, there’s more extreme cases).

But in taking a wrong turn, the words are coming. I happily wrote 500 words about Luke’s daily professional routine. We got to see the bar/bistro he worked in (as well as learn a bit about its history), and met two of his co-workers, as well as his boss. I could’ve gone on and on. But, as I wrote, the editor in me was examining the scene and declaring it was already too long, and if I continued it that it would grow longer without adding too much to the overall story.

When this happens, I always correlate it with trying to find exactly where I want to go. It’s like driving to a location you’ve never been before, and only having a rough idea of how to get there. You might have to take a few wrong turns and explore a few wrong streets before you work out that’s not the way to go. But in taking those wrong turns, you usually will work out the right way. The problem is how much time and energy you waste on exploring those wrong turns – hopefully it’s not so much that you become disenfranchised with the whole project.

Ultimately, I cut the scene and stuck it in a new file – TFSoLY (EXTRACTS). I’ve done this for all my major works (books and screenplays), archiving these cut scenes, the way DVD and BluRay releases of movies nowadays feature DELETED SCENES.

Interestingly, Just Another Week in Suburbia and August Falling didn’t need EXTRACTS files because the early drafts emerged relatively well-formed. Still, to be fair, after Just Another Week in Suburbia was selected for the Hachette Manuscript Development Program in 2013, the wonderful Bernadette Foley – then the fiction publisher for Hachette – gave me such precise feedback about what I should be looking at in the early draft of JAWiS, that I cut and rewrote about one/third of the book, which then became the draft that Pantera Press accepted. Those cuts now exist only in earlier drafts. Such cuts weren’t required from August Falling, but my fantastic editor at Pantera, Lucy Bell, provided me such comprehensive feedback that I worked out what areas I needed to develop.

Anyway, the biggest extracts file I have is 8,000 words, which is not a bad effort given it’s for a novella that’s only 20,000 words. In that case, much of the original openings were cut. For one of my screenplays (which ended up being optioned in 2006), I got to 95 pages (of an intended 120), felt it wasn’t working, and cut 90 pages and started over. I have heard of authors who’ve cut much, much more of their work.

But now I do feel I’m on the right course. I’m sure there’ll be other wrong turns, but I like the way TFSoLY is going.

 
Last Week’s Lie: I said while handwriting my book way back in 1985, I’d survive on a diet of tea and cigarettes (true), or seven or eight Red Bulls. That part of the sentence is a lie. Red Bull was created in 1987 in Austria, and didn’t arrive in Australia until 1997.